The first devastating outbreak of polio, an inflammation of the spinal cord that could leave its victims unable to move arms, legs, or even lungs, began in the United States in 1916. From June to August, almost 9,000 people had come down with the ravaging illness causing 6,000 deaths out of a total of some 27,000 cases. Because most of the victims were less than five years old, the disease was called infantile paralysis and given the scientific name poliomyelitis.
Most of the victims survived, but many had withered limbs for which there was no acceptable treatment or therapy. Few facilities existed for the care of such disabled people, and since the cause of the disease was unknown, families were subject to prejudice that they had brought it on themselves through lack of hygiene.
Many outbreaks of polio followed the 1916 epidemic, devastating communities. Polio also struck older people. In 1921 Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the leading lights of the Democratic party, became ill. On August 10 he went to bed fatigued. Two days later, his legs were paralyzed. He had polio, and he never walked unassisted again.
Roosevelt spent the next seven years trying to cure his paralysis. He was a wealthy and influential man, and he used his money on all the available treatments. Nothing helped. Concerned about the medical costs for polio patients, he and his law partner sponsored a series of National Balls which raised around $800,000. But, by 1932, when he was elected to his first term as president, he knew more money needed to be raised to help with the aftereffects of the disease.
By 1938, the January balls were in decline, and a new kind of promotion was needed. That year the name March of Dimes was coined by the vaudeville entertainer Eddie Cantor, a fundraiser both for the Democratic Party and for the National Foundation’s balls.
The implication of Cantor’s phrase was that even a dime was of use in the fight against polio. Cantor and other entertainers urged people to send dimes to the White House.
President Roosevelt established the March of Dimes foundation in January of 1938. The March of Dimes immediately began issuing research grants, giving scholarships to doctors and nurses, and providing equipment for laboratories and hospitals.
The March of Dimes called on ordinary people to contribute just a little money. One tactic was to go to movie theaters, stop the film in the middle, turn up the lights, and pass out a collection can. March of Dimes collection cans were placed on store counters, and people filled them with change. Children mailed in dimes on special cards.
Much of the credit for the success of the March of Dimes is attributed to Elaine Whitelaw who made her career out of raising money. In 1943 President Roosevelt appointed Whitelaw to head the national women’s committee of the March of Dimes. Whitelaw understood that polio was an issue that touched every ordinary woman with children, and she was key to the enormous success of the organization
One innovation was the poster child campaign, which began in 1946. The March of Dimes Poster Child was meant to look happy and attractive, though leg braces or some other symptom of disability was evident. These children were far from pathetic, and it was a vision of disability that had not been seen in the United States before. The image of the vibrant, though crippled, child projected hope for recovery and inspired people to give money to the foundation.
The March of Dimes bought iron lungs, crutches, and laboratory equipment as well as trucks to transport it in, so all that was needed could be moved quickly to regions in the midst of an outbreak.
The iron lung enabled a person to breathe when normal muscle control was lost or the work of breathing exceeded the person’s ability. The person using the iron lung was placed into the central chamber, a cylindrical steel drum. A door allowing the head and neck to remain free was closed, forming a sealed, air-tight compartment enclosing the rest of the person’s body. Pumps that controlled the airflow periodically decreased and increased the air pressure within the chamber, and, particularly, on the chest. The iron lung mimicked the physiological action of breathing.
Entire hospital wards were filled with rows of iron lungs at the height of the polio outbreaks of the 1940s and 1950s.